Jason Kenney is currently Stephen Harper’s defence minister, but he made his mark as the Conservatives’ high profile minister of immigration, a post he held from 2007 to 2013. A government of Canada website awards Kenney the distinction of having been the longest-serving immigration minister in Canadian history. That is only technically true, however. The longest serving minister responsible for immigration was actually Wilfred Laurier’s minister of the interior, Clifford Sifton, who served from 1896 to 1905.
Sifton made his place in history by aggressively pursuing massive immigration in order to settle what was then seen as the vast and mostly unpopulated western frontier. The fact that the Canadian prairies were long inhabited by the Indigenous and Métis peoples was of scant concern to the government of the day. Sifton encouraged immigrants from the traditional sources, the British Isles and the United States, but also from Central and Eastern Europe. When Canada’s version of “know-nothing” nativists criticized him for bringing in strange folk who spoke in foreign tongues, Clifton defended his charges, calling them “stalwart peasants in sheepskin coats” who would help build the young country.
Building the new Dominion in the northern half of the continent was what Sifton was all about. And nation-building is also how Jason Kenney sometimes described the role of his immigration policy, more than a century later. But where Sifton encouraged a massive influx of mostly unschooled migrants, boatloads of prospective settlers for the as-yet untilled prairies, Kenney took a targeted approach.
Bending immigration policy to business needs
Aiming to align immigration with labour market needs, he de-emphasized family reunification and worked to attract younger, highly skilled workers, already fluent in English or French. And Kenney gave the private sector a major role in immigration determination. One of his signature reforms was to allow Canadian businesses to directly recruit employees from a government-provided list of qualified prospective immigrants.
Kenney’s policy responded, in part, to the legitimate concern that, historically, Canada might have admitted too many immigrants who, while highly trained, had skills that were simply not in demand in this country. But there is more to it than that. The employer-selection program was not, at heart, an effort to solve a problem based on facts and evidence. It mostly reflected the Conservatives’ fundamentalist free-market ideology, part of their penchant to focus on a short-term and narrowly-defined vision of Canada’s economic self interest.
The much-expanded temporary foreign worker (TFW) program resulted from that same impulse. Some bad publicity — most notably a CBC exposé of how the Royal Bank was using temporary workers not to fill gaps, but to replace some of its permanent employees — caused the Harper government to turn 180 degrees on TFWs. Until that reversal, the government had built up the TFW program to such massive proportions that Canada was taking in almost as many temporary workers as immigrants. In 2013, Kenney, in his new role as employment minister, steered the government’s u-turn on TFWs in a full-court press effort at damage control. Until that shift, however, the Conservatives had proudly touted easier access to TFWs as one of the ways in which they had cut “red tape” for business.
It was the labour movement that stepped up to remind the Harper government that creating a disenfranchised and exploited army of guest workers does not qualify as nation building. The Canadian Labour Congress counselled the government that if it wanted to engage in genuine nation building, it should replace temporary foreign workers with full-fledged immigrants who would have a clear path to citizenship.
The government did create such a path — but only for an elite, highly skilled class of temporary workers. It pointedly excluded the large group Kenney described as low skilled. Those workers should know Canada only wants the sweat of their brow, and for a limited time. Harper’s star minister implied that while Canada was happy to avail itself of the cheap labour of a kind of mobile, worldwide proletariat, it had zero interest in those workers as human beings.
Forget family values
When it comes to immigration, human and humanitarian concerns are a tiresome bore to the Harper Conservatives. And the Conservative policy is not a mere abstract matter of numbers and quotas. It has had a devastating impact on some truly vulnerable people. This writer has heard the stories of tax-paying, well-integrated immigrants, who are now citizens, and who wish to bring aging parents to live with them. Conservative Parliament Hill staffers openly scoff at such folks. They tell them the sort of family reunification they seek is no longer a priority for the government. The most the Conservatives will do is begrudgingly tolerate aging parents’ presence on annually renewable visitors’ visas.
One of the Conservatives’ rationales for this mean-spirited approach is that they don’t want new elderly immigrants to become a “burden” to the health-care system. Health care is a provincial responsibility, of course, and, when asked, provinces such as Ontario say they are quite prepared to accommodate parents and other family members of citizens who came here as immigrants, regardless of the cost. That does not move the Harper government.
The Conservatives’ 2012 omnibus budget famously eliminated a queue of over a quarter of a million immigration applications from skilled workers and their dependents. Jason Kenney justified this draconian move with the argument that wait-times for these people had grown unacceptably long. It was cruel, he said, to make such people wait years before their cases were decided. Kenney did not, however, evince any concern for the thousands of people who had just waited years for nothing.
Refugee policy: a study in meanness
Where Kenney and the Harper government have really showed their fangs, however, is on refugee policy. Here they have engaged in a near demagogic appeal to fear and resentment, trucking in such phrases as “queue jumpers,” “bogus refugees” and “welfare seekers.”
But their bite has proven much worse than their bark. The Harper Conservatives’ policy on refugees has been marked by breathtaking callousness, as evidenced by the changes it made to the Interim Federal Health program in order to deny medical care to refugees from so-called safe countries as well as to rejected claimants — a move the Federal Court judged “cruel and unusual.” In the decision, Judge Anne Mactavish paid particular attention to the implications for children, arguing that the measures “potentially jeopardize the health, the safety and indeed the very lives, of … innocent and vulnerable children in a manner that shocks the conscience and outrages Canadian standards of decency.”
Which is not to say that Canada’s refugee policy had historically been especially compassionate, notwithstanding Canada’s receipt of the Nansen Prize in 1986, the first and only time the United Nations High Commission for Refugees gave the award to an entire people.
Following the First World War, the Canadian government resisted admitting stateless refugees because they could not subsequently be deported. Nor would Canada recognize the “Nansen passport” for post-war refugees, named for the League of Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, Fridtjof Nansen, who also gave his name to the Nansen Prize. Again, the Canadian government worried that Nansen’s plan did not allow for the forcible return of refugees deemed undesirable.
During the Nazi regime in Germany, starting in the early 1930s, the Canadian immigration department was notoriously anti-Semitic and worked to exclude all Jewish refugees. Following the Second World War, the official policy became more inclusive and, between 1946 and 1962, Canada admitted nearly 250,000 refugees. Even then, however, according to the Canadian Council for Refugees, “selection criteria were guided by considerations of economic self-interest, racial prejudice and political bias.”
In 1951, Canada declined to sign the newly drafted United Nations Convention on Refugees. Pleading concern about security issues, the government wanted the right to deport refugees whom they believed to be communists. Canada did eventually sign the Convention in 1969, and both Liberal and Conservative governments have since grappled with refugee policy. Both have worried that the refugee process could become a back-door route for would-be immigrants. In 1987, when a boat full of Sikhs seeking refuge arrived on the shores of Nova Scotia, the Mulroney government reacted almost with panic. It portrayed the event as a sort of invasion and introduced a tough new law that allowed the government to seize ships suspected of carrying such “illegal migrants” at sea and to fine the companies carrying them. The current Conservative government took this tough approach even further, partly in response to the much more recent arrival of two boats carrying Sri Lankan Tamil refugees.
No refuge for the Roma
In Harper’s Canada, the most vicious treatment of refugees by far has been reserved for the Roma. After the fall of the Soviet empire in the early 1990s, Canada regularized relations with former East Bloc countries, most of which joined the European Union as soon as they could. As part of this process, Canada dropped visa requirements on visitors from these countries. In the late 1990s, some Roma in the Czech Republic and Slovakia learned that they could get to Canada on direct flights and claim refugee status at the airport, on arrival. In their home countries, their lives were generally miserable. In the Czech Republic, for instance, after most of the Roma had been exterminated by the Nazi occupiers during the Holocaust, those who remained were subject to serious discrimination at the hands of the Communists, who insisted they abandon their migratory way of life and take up work largely in low-skilled industrial jobs. While officially discouraging anti-Roma bigotry, the Communists were themselves selectively cruel to the Roma, even forcibly sterilizing some Roma women, for instance. Among the majority population, the Roma were often viewed with thinly-veiled contempt, and that veil was torn off in post-Communist Eastern Europe when decades of simmering hatred and bigotry erupted. Almost all the Roma quickly lost their jobs and were kicked out of their government-supplied housing, which was privatized and put on the market. Extreme right groups made the Roma minorities the main target of their venom and violence.
In countries such as the Czech Republic, the Roma had legitimate cause to feel genuine fear. Officials of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), created in 1986 to adjudicate refugee claims at arm’s length from government, took their reports of persecution seriously. The IRB conferred refugee status on many, who formed, for the first time, a Roma community in Canada, centred in Toronto and Hamilton.
In 2008, many Hungarian Roma began to come to Canada, at one point forming the single largest group of refugee claimants. Their stories of persecution at the hands of extremists, egged on by Hungary’s ultra-nationalist Jobbik party, were even more horrific than those of Czech and Slovak Roma.
The government also imposed a visa requirement on Mexicans to stem an influx of refugee claimants, many victims of persecution based on gender or sexual orientation. The Mexican government protested, but lacking the bargaining power of the EU, it was ignored. In 2010, the Harper minority government’s response to the more vexatious EU problem was to introduce measures in a package of refugee reforms that would sift out what it called “bogus” from so-called genuine refugees.
That original refugee legislation also included some useful reforms, such as the creation of a new Refugee Appeal Division (RAD) which would give rejected refugee applicants a fact-based review of their cases. But its main thrust was to streamline the refugee process. The government’s purported solution to the influx of Roma refugees from the EU — and others, such as Mexicans, whose claims it considered bogus — was to create a distinct class of refugee claimants from so-called safe Designated Countries of Origin. Asylum seekers from those countries would be put on a fast track, with the aim of deporting most of them as quickly as possible.
But the Harper Conservatives only had a minority at the time, and had to compromise with opposition parties. Liberals and New Democrats supported the idea of getting rid of backlogs in the clogged system, but forced Immigration Minister Jason Kenney to soften his legislation in several key ways and make it fairer. For instance, the power to decide which countries to rank as safe would belong to a non-partisan panel of human rights experts. And refugee claimants from countries designated as safe would have access to a fact-based review of their cases by the new RAD.
After accepting a long list of opposition amendments, Kenney actually said they made his bill better and showed how a minority parliament could work effectively. He must have been crossing his fingers behind his back because, once the Conservatives won their majority, Kenney scrapped the compromise legislation and brought in a package of far more severe measures. The minister of immigration would now have the unilateral, unfettered power to determine the safe-countries list, and asylum seekers from those countries would be given an impossibly short time to establish their claims, with no right of appeal. The new legislation also included harsh measures, including detention, to deter refugees from coming to Canada by what the Conservatives called irregular means, such as by boat.
It was all part of a Conservative law-and-order strategy — and it worked. Kenney had always been Stephen Harper’s point person on outreach to multicultural communities. Perhaps surprisingly, Kenney’s tough refugee measures appealed to many new Canadians — as did the government’s decision to kill the longstanding refugee health program. The courts have ruled the latter decision unconstitutional, but the Conservatives have appealed and virtually ignored the order to reinstate the program. Kenney’s veiled attacks on the beleaguered European Roma, in particular, found resonance in Canada’s east and central European communities. European bigotry against the hated “Gypsies” dies hard. It is widespread and deeply rooted and continues to infect even some European socialists and greens.
Nobody, it seems, ever loses politically by picking on history’s scapegoats, of whom the Roma must be numbered among the most persecuted. Mainstream media outlets evaluating the Harper cabinet tend to give high marks to Jason Kenney. The Globe and Mail has been trenchantly critical of some major Harper government initiatives, such as the Fair Elections Act and Bill C-51, the so-called anti-terror legislation. But it has been an ardent cheerleader for everything Jason Kenney has undertaken, including his manifestly unjust refugee policy reforms.
Harper’s media-anointed star performer, Kenney has shamelessly partaken in the age-old demagogic strategy of finding convenient scapegoats and mercilessly targeting them for political gain. Despite the plaudits he has earned from his near-sighted media admirers, nothing defines Kenney so much as his willingness to stoop to those tactics.
Karl Nerenberg is a Canadian journalist, broadcaster and filmmaker, working in both English and French languages. Since 2011 he has been the parliamentary correspondent, based in Ottawa, for the online, left-of-centre Canadian newsmagazine rabble.ca.
This article appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Canadian Dimension (The Harper Demolition).